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One of gaming’s most creative directors, Tim Schafer, was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame on Thursday night.
Speaking at the DICE Summit, he was quick to point out that such a formal award doesn’t mean the end of his career. After thirty-two years in the game business, Schafer seems to have found his footing.
“As you get older, your brain gets really smooth,” joked Schafer in a wide-ranging interview on stage. And there have been challenges through the years. “My advantage is I’m really forgetful.”
He recalled early days at the game studio owned by George Lucas. Schafer was hired because he was a programmer who could write as well. “Working at Skywalker ranch was not bad.”
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“It was a really amazing set-up, because we were sitting on a pile of Star Wars money, but we couldn’t make Star Wars.” This lead to LucasArts creating new intellectual property. “I guess I’ll make up other stuff with people’s money.”
“It seemed like all games were science fiction or fantasy,” he recalls of the time. The studio explored the unexplored, from pirates to bikers to the wild west. Says Schafer, “Now days, games are covering everything — which is what I like about the game industry today.”
He would go on to put his life’s savings into founding his own studio, Double Fine Productions. Schafer had watched others leave LucasArts and decided, “If they can do, I can do it.” But going in, he didn’t know if it would be hard or easy. Whatever the answer, “it had to work.”
Schafer tried to put together people from outside the industry and re-invent things along the way. The studio has been public about the struggles of independent game development. When it comes to crunch mode, he says “It’s not normal. It means something went wrong.”
Iteration takes time. “It’s hard,” he says. “If you have the time, it’s worth going to something really new that hasn’t been done before.”
Games are the complexity of software, multiplied by the subjectivity of art. “Which is why we like it.”
Success and stress
Innovation also comes at a cost. Over the years, Schafer would come to associate trade shows with asking for money and pitching publishers. Something he doesn’t have to do since Microsoft bought the studio in 2019.
Stress becomes a reflex. Schafer confides that even today, he’ll have flashbacks of terror, wondering “How do I pay everyone next week?” before realizing, “Oh, it’s okay.”
He recalls the solution, when “sweet-talking Matt Booty,” made Microsoft’s offer. “They didn’t want to change who we were.” Instead, the company wanted them to make great games.
Schafer was particularly drawn to Game Pass. A $70 dollar game, he says, can’t be weird. Buyers want to feel sure they’ll like it when they spend full retail. Schafer’s games try to be weird on purpose. And Game Pass offers the solution — players can try it without risk.
“We always wanted to make smaller games,” he says. “Now, you can put games of any size on Game Pass.” He describes wanting to make $15 games at LucasArts, but there wasn’t anywhere to put them on the shelf.
And Schafer recalls the previous cycle. “We’d hear ‘this is really creative,’” which meant, “no.” Or, publisher execs would say, “I’d like to play this, and I hope someone funds it.” But everyone would pass on the projects Double Fine pitched.
Different mediums have value. “Some things are enhanced from an interactive state. That feeling is so magic in games. Can I go around this corner? OMG, there’s a secret room.”
Writing for games is what he loves — and he wouldn’t do movies or television. “Games are in their most beautiful form as games, to me.” And he doesn’t need to transport art from one medium to another.
Reflecting on his career, Schafer told the DICE Summit audience, “You never hit this point in your games career where you know everything.”
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